AT: US-501/VA-130 (James River) to Sunset Field, Blue Ridge Parkway

This was the last autumn backpacking venture that Maple and I would have for the year, and (as it turned out) it was also our first hike for the winter of ’16/17, for winter surely descended upon us on Saturday, November 19. But I am getting ahead of myself.

11-18_1532Maple did some preparatory research for our backpacking trip and was told that a dry season had left Marble Spring spent, and that we should expect no available water at Marble Spring Campsite. So, in addition to packing our usual water for the hike, I filled my 4-litre dromedary. Unfortunately, on the way to our beginning point, one of my Camelback bottles leaked, and I found it to be completely empty as I prepared to begin our hike. The situation placed Maple and I in a quandary, but just then a mobile home pulled into the parking lot. I asked the driver if he had any water to spare, and his wife happily refilled my bottle. Afterwards I found that they were there with the intent to be of service to hikers—that they were, in fact, traveling trail angels.

Our hike began by crossing the James River on the longest footbridge on the entire A.T., and then walking westward alongside it for nearly a mile, until we reached Matts Creek. 11-18_093711-18_0938Then we followed the creek to Matts Creek Shelter before crossing it and beginning our ascent up to Hickory Stand. There Maple and I took a break for lunch, and proceeded about a mile before running into two trail workers, Buckeye and Grateful, with the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club. They invited us to sit with them a bit, and we learned that they were also section hikers.

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At 7.8 miles we reached Marble Spring Campsite and found that no one else was there. 11-18_1531The first order of business was to check the spring, just in case, and we found that it was producing a steady but slow current. Once again, caution had prompted me to carry a heavy load of water unnecessarily. Still, better to be cautious than sorry. After setting up our tent and enjoying a cup of coffee, first a young woman (Grizzly) and, later, an older man (Leprechaun) strolled into camp. They both had the “gift of gab” and proved sufficient company for one another, so Maple and I called it an early night. During the night another southbound backpacker (who had sent home his tent!) came into camp.

It had been a warm day, reaching sixty-nine degrees, and the night was cloudless and comfortable. But the following day, during the late morning and early afternoon, the temperature dropped thirty degrees, and a powerful wind came into play, knocking down branches and scattering a fresh layer of leaves over our trail. In addition, dark clouds blew over us, threatening rain. Although Maple and I had 9.5 miles to hike, most of it uphill, we took few and short breaks, as we were afraid we were going to get pelted by freezing rain. Fortunately, we stayed dry and the clouds were blown away in the early afternoon.

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Thunder Hill Lookout

The Guillotine

The Guillotine

We passed Thunder Hill Shelter without visiting it, nor did we spend any time at the lookout on top of Thunder Hill. But we did pause briefly at the Guillotine. Who would not pause before walking under a boulder supported by two granite walls? That boulder may have been where it is for centuries, but it nevertheless looks like it is waiting to fall—just like the blade of a guillotine.

AT: US-60 to US-501/VA-130

Day One: US-60 to Mile 51.7, Blue Ridge Parkway

Having a long day of hiking ahead of us, Maple and I wanted to get on the trail rather early in the day, so we spent the night before at a hotel close to Liberty University in Lynchburgh. We saw plenty of “Vote for Trump” signs and not a single sign in favor of Hillary Clinton. We were definitely deep into central Virginia.

Usually, the beginning of a hike takes us out of a gap and up a mountain or steep incline to a ridge, but this was an exception. A smooth and easy trail, covered in autumn leaves, followed Brown Mountain Creek for nearly two miles. At Brown Mountain Creek Shelter we spotted a couple of backpackers, who appeared to be just beginning their day. Just beyond the shelter is a footbridge over the creek. A mile further we crossed the second footbridge, near a swimming hole, and then left the creek behind us.

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The trail takes the long way around Lynchburgh Reservoir, but neither of us were complaining, as the trail afforded several nice views through the trees of the artificial lake and damn. Walking around several gullies reminded Maple of hiking the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon, where one has to walk around side canyons and creeks.

After circling around Lynchburgh Reservoir, at about the 6.5 mile point, we crossed the suspension bridge over Pedlar River and, then, began our 1200-foot ascent of Rice Mountain. The trail was still technically easy, but the mountain was the most difficult part of the day’s hike. While hiking up the mountain we came across two other hikers, the only ones we saw on the trail this day.

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All-in-all, it was a pleasant day-hike of 10.9 miles. The trail itself was about as easy as one can find on a ten-mile stretch of the A.T., and the fall foliage and cool weather made for beautiful scenery and comfortable hiking.

Day Two: Blue Ridge Parkway to US-501

After a great hike the previous day, Birch and I were really looking forward to this hike. We, were wimps, I admit, and stayed overnight in a hotel. We needed to go over 10 miles and still have time to get home (5 hour drive) so going without all the backpacking gear seemed the best bet.

The hike began with a sharp ascent of about two miles. At the .4 mile mark we saw the turn off to Punchbowl Shelter. Punchbowl Mountain was not too impressive since there were no overlooks. We barely knew we had reached the summit. About a mile later we reached the top of Bluff Mountain and this had an amazing panoramic view of the Shenandoah Valley.

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We had a one-mile descent and then things leveled off as we passed Saltlog Gap. There we saw one person camping. It was a pretty quiet day on the trail, considering that it was a Saturday with unusually warm weather.

10-29-1300We stopped for coffee just before Big Rocky Row and 10-29-1301then came to Fullers Rocks overlook. It was the perfect spot to take in the view, eat a sandwich, and rest in the sun. As we made the – descent we began seeing other folks going up the trail for a day hike. This included a rather rambunctious group of boy scouts (maybe 20?) all excited to be on the trail.

The last part of the hike is really beautiful. We walked along a beautiful stream and were able to enjoy a bit of serenity before having to make our way back home. Birch liked this hike better than yesterday but both are great day hikes.

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Appalachian Trail: VA-56 (Wye River) to US-60

9-23-842Day One: VA-56 to The Priest Shelter

Maple and I stayed at the Amherst Inn on Wednesday night, so we could get off to an early start Thursday morning. The weather was perfect. In the upper 70s, with clear skies. What we were more concerned about was the availability of water on top of The Priest. Maple and I had both made inquiries, and what we were told left us thinking that, to be sure of water, we had to carry it with us. (Thanks Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club!) So I packed on an extra 4 liters, and Maple carried an extra 1.75. That, plus four days of food and clothing, made us feel that we were carrying the heaviest packs ever.

We had seen The Priest mountain before, when descending to VA-56 through the Three Ridges Wilderness one month ago. It was an imposing sight, with a peak stretching upwards through a canopy of clouds. “That is what we have to climb on our next outing?!” we said, with no little anxiety. Yet, we did it. One step at a time. Having experienced a rather calamitous fall during that former backpacking venture, I was especially careful to keep my eyes on the ground before me, so as not to get tripped up. Maple and I made a game of counting the switchbacks: roughly, 35. (What counts and does not count as a switchback is a consideration that will lead to varying results.)

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We stopped to have lunch on some rocks about two-thirds of the way up, at an overlook, and took pictures. A little snake seemed to take an interest in us, and came so close that it peeked up at us from under Maple’s backpack. She screamed and sent the critter scrambling under leaves. From here on the hike seemed to get more difficult. Ultimately, we were pausing every ten to twenty yards to catch our breath. Finally, we reached the top, where, over the rocks to our right, 9-22-1351was the last overlook. Maple insisted I check it out, and since it was level ground, I consented. But, I got careless, and my boot got caught on a root, sending me diving face-first into the dirt. In the presence of The Priest, I cursed. I confess I was pissed off at myself, since I had tried so hard to be careful before taking this short detour.

F9-22-1657inally, we arrived at The Priest Shelter. There, we found that we had carried the extra water unnecessarily, that the spring was flowing, however so gently. We set up our camp, made coffee, filtered water, and relaxed. After making dinner, we played a game of backgammon, retired, and day one was over.

 

Day Two: The Priest Shelter to Seeley-Woodsworth Shelter

Day two was expected to be an easy, 6.7 mile jaunt. This area was once a logging area, and much of the larger trees were wiped out in the 1930s or so. It did seem like there was more new growth than some areas we’ve hiked before. However, it was beautiful. It was far enough away from main roads to be very quiet and peaceful.

9-23-842The trail descended sharply going south from the Priest. Then, it offered a series of ascents and descents (overall going up about 1,000 ft.) before reading “Spy Rock”. Spy Rock is a very popular day hike. It was fun to see people ooh and aw over our “big” backs. “You are obviously professionals,” someone said. Yeah. Right.

We had lunch at Spy Rock but never did get to the top. I’m sure it must be possible but it required a bit too much effort for our liking. Apparently, this was once a great place for the Confederate troops to track the forces from the North. I’ll have to take others’ word for it.

In about 2 1/2 miles we reached Seeley-Woodsworth Shelter. It has a tremendous, well-running spring that enabled us to fill up to our heart’s content with water. There, we met “Star Man” and “Fire Starter”, two brothers who valued fellowship over tough hikes. They had skipped the Priest but had experienced other fun adventures on the trail. A surfer/massage therapist/Costa Rican named Todd joined us at the shelter and we had a blast sharing stories. Overall, it was a wonderful day.

Home Sweet Home at Seeley!

Home Sweet Home at Seeley!

Day Three: Seeley-Woodsworth Shelter to Cow Camp Gap Shelter

Day three was, potentially, our hardest venture, with 10.2 miles to hike to get to the blue trail leading to the shelter—another .5 miles. It was the furthest we had ever committed ourselves to hiking with full backpacks. Having been previously informed that the spring at Cow Camp Gap was dry, we stashed a water supply off the trail at a clearing two miles north of Cow Camp Gap. So, at least we didn’t have to carry extra water as far as this clearing.dscn0631

The hiking wasn’t too difficult, and we arrived at Hog Camp Gap at about noon. There we rested under apple trees, had an apple with our lunch, and were about to begin our descent up Cole Mountain when I suddenly realized that this was the place that I had stashed water. I hadn’t known exactly where I had stashed water, only that there was a sign indicating that it was two miles before Cow Camp Gap. When I saw the sign, I realized that Hog Camp Gap was the place. So, we retrieved our water, and with the added weight, climbed Cole Mountain.

On our ascent, we encountered a woman with a melodious southern ascent who assured 9-24-1326us that Cole Mountain rewarded its climbers—that it was like that hill that Julie Andrews climbed in The Sound of Music that inspired her to break out in song. Well, Cole Mountain did, indeed, have a wonderful panoramic view (not quite 360 degrees, but still rather impressive for a hill—not quite as majestic as The Priest). We did not sing, not that we did not want to—perhaps, we were out of breath. A little ways south, we encountered a father and son team who volunteered to take our picture.

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Finally, we arrived at Cow Camp Gap Shelter and discovered that the spring was flowing. Once again, we had carried extra water unnecessarily. The good thing about it was that we had no need to filter water. We had plenty of water to spare. As there was a small family inhabiting the shelter and playing their music, we decided to hike further down the creek. There we found good tent spots and quiet. Todd, the surfer dude that we had met at Seeley-Woodworth, had made it here before us, but there was ample space, and Todd hardly made his presence known.

Day Four: Cow Camp Gap Shelter to US-60

Our campsite.

Our campsite.

We awoke in the middle of the night to rain. By morning, everything was soaked, especially (for some reason) the inside of our tent. Birch was kind enough to get up and make coffee. After warming up with the cup ‘o Joe, we decided that the best thing to do was to eat a power bar and get moving. We packed up quickly and put on a bit of rain gear. However, by the time we went the 1/2 mile back up to the AT we decided that wearing the rain gear wasn’t worth it. We were too hot!

The fresh, cool, rainy weather was just what we needed to ascend the 2 miles to the top of Bald Knob. There are no overlooks here, which is just as well since we were fogged in. The descent is long (over two miles) and steep (a 2000 ft descent.) We made great time and were back to the car well before noon. US-60 has plenty of parking and the wayside was full of cars, many with AT bumper stickers. I guess it is a popular spot. I can’t wait to get back here for our next adventure, as we continue south on the trail.

Appalachian Trail: Jarmans Gap to Rockfish Gap

The terrain on this part of the A.T. is surprisingly varied and somewhat more difficult than what Maple and I have experienced on the A.T. elsewhere in Shenandoah N.P. We generally cover two to two-and-a-half miles per hour, but this eight mile stretch took us a full five hours to complete.

Our trek began by ascending Calf Mountain, and, no doubt, this is where we were slowed down. As we came to the top of the mountain, we saw a bear foraging near the trail. I said, “There’s a bear,” Maple screamed, and the poor bear went running off as fast as its legs could carry him.

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The trail took us through patches of wildflowers on Little Calf Mountain. There we saw deer and rabbits.

DSCN0584After having part of our lunch at Beagle Gap, we crossed Skyline Drive and ascended Bear Den Mountain, on which are several power stations. Shortly after passing these, we ran into two other section hikers that we recognized as having met in Pennsylvania. These were O.G. (Old Guy) Bob and O.G. Rick (a.k.a. Grey Cloud).

After crossing the road again at McCormick Gap, we ascended Scott Mountain, and then continued on a ridge parallel to Skyline Drive. On the map, this looks like a smooth three miles, but the terrain is actually quite rocky.

Overall, this was a great hike, one that is probably overlooked by all but a few visitors to Shenandoah N.P.

Appalachian Trail: Brown Gap to Riprap Trail Parking Area

Since Maple and I had hiked the short distance from the Loft Mountain Campground Store to Brown Gap during our last camping trip, we resumed our hike at Brown Gap.

DSCN0567This 6.7 mile trek reminded me of “The Roller Coaster” north of Shenandoah N.P. When we were not going up, we were going down. But the only peak that had a name was Blackrock Summit.

I was very impressed with the work that had recently been done to the trail on Blackrock Summit. Although the trail goes across rocks, the path had been made smooth by the laying down of great quantities of gravel, which ultimately made the path smooth. Question: Why isn’t this done on the A.T. across Pennsylvania?

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Someone or some persons had recently placed a wind-chime on a tree limb overhanging the trail on Blackrock Summit. It was placed in memory of Nate Fletcher.

Maple and I saw several NB thru-hikers, even though they are rapidly going out of season in Shenandoah.

All-in-all, it was a very pleasant, if not particularly distinguished, hike. Although the temperature was in the mid-80s, the humidity left Maple and I quite drenched in our own sweat.

Appalachian Trail: Swift Run Gap to Simmons Gap

For a second weekend in a row, Birch and I stayed at Loft Mountain Campground so that we could hike the AT in Shenandoah. This weekend was much cooler. For me, that makes a BIG difference. Cooler weather cuts down my fatigue as well as my need for fluiids.

After dropping one car off at the turn off for the Ranger Station (Simmons Gap) we pulled over to the side of the road with the other car just south of the Swift Run Gap park entrance.  The first part of the hike is straight up, about 800ft in about 1 1/2 miles. Since its the beginning of the hike, I felt pretty fresh and it was very manageable. As you can see from the photo below, the view was well worth it. This is High Top Mountain. It isn’t as crowded as some of the more popular areas of the park, and this makes it a nice destination in itself.DSCN0519

After admiring the view, down we went! The trail descends about three miles, passing the Smith Roach Gap Fire Road. I couldn’t help take some photos of the ferns near here. So beautiful! DSCN0523

After crossing the parkway at Powell Gap we ascended less than a  mile before we got to a beautiful overlook. There was a sign there (made of sticks) marking this as the 900 mile mark of the AT (from the south, of course.) Tod and I used this as an opportunity to take a nice long break. After eating our sandwiches we put on our fleece jackets and made coffee. It is times like this on the trail that make all the hard work worth it. We really enjoyed the opportunity to relax and enjoy our surroundings.  We could see the parkway way below us, houses in a town far away, and an incredible blanket of trees that seemed to go on forever.

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Coffee + hiking + view = bliss!

Coffee + hiking + view = bliss!

It was a quick hike back to the car, which was less than two miles away. When we exited the trail we realized that there was a small parking lot across the road from the Ranger Station entrance that we could have used. This is good info for next time, when we continue our southward adventures.6-16_7

 

Appalachian Trail: Loft Mountain Campground to Browns Gap

After enjoying a relaxing Sunday in camp with perfect weather, Maple and I decided to hike the short distance of 4.3 miles from the camp store at Loft Mountain Campground south to Browns Gap. Oddly, there is no signpost for the AT at the camp store, but the AT is accessible by going down a short distance on a connecting trail that runs behind the adjoining restrooms into the forest. The AT southbound, then, makes about three quarters of a loop around the campground.campstore

The trail to Brown Gap is well marked and easy to follow, but the directional posts that the NPS has placed along the way wherever trails merge appear to provide distances that are incongruent with each other, and at least one post suggested that the distance between our two points was a full mile shorter than that which is indicated on the PATC map. I pointed this out to a northbound thru-hiker, and he pointed out to me that it made no practical difference.

Anyway, Shenandoah was absolutely gorgeous in green on this windy day in June.

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Appalachian Trail: Rockfish Gap to Dripping Rock

By the time that Maple and I arrived at our starting point, it was already noon, and finding a parking space was difficult. After all, it was Memorial Day weekend, the sun was out after weeks of rain, and if other folks’ hiking-boots were at all like mine, they were itching to get back out on the trail.

The trail from Rockfish Gap to the Paul C. Wolfe Shelter, five miles southward, is about as smooth and as gentle as the A.T. ever is. It crosses half a dozen shallow creeks and springs, so water is plentiful. After several weeks of rain, the forest was looking a little like a rain-forest, the vegetation had become so abundant, lush, and green.

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Stone step switchback turns

Stone step switchback turns

Ultimately, the trail becomes a series of downhill switchbacks, leading to the shelter and the rushing stream below. The Old Dominion Appalachian Trail Club has done excellent work here, building a series of stone steps at each turn of the switchbacks.

The setting of the shelter could not have been better chosen, and it was clearly a popular camping spot. Maple and I picked a tent-site just a few feet from the stream, amid trees, and by a fire-pit. Throughout the night, we could hear the water running past us. If I have any complaint—and I have none that would be sufficient to keep me from this shelter—-it would have to be the infestation of ticks. Maple and I pulled five off of us during the evening, and I found one embedded in my leg the following day.

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That next day was almost entirely uphill, but the switchbacks made the hiking less strenuous and consistent, if longer. We were never really sure when we got to the top of Humpback Mountain; at the top there was a gradual decreasing of ups and a gradual increase of downs, but no peak on which to hang our hats while we shouted our victory.

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5-29_4Although we had other hikers warn us about a cub and a rattler on the trail, we saw neither. What we did see was just how beautiful and majestic the Blue Ridge Mountains could be.

Appalachian Trail: Wind Gap to Delaware Water Gap

Having two cars, once again, Maple and I decided to complete our trek across Pennsylvania this weekend by backpacking north from Wind Gap, tenting at Kirkridge Shelter, and then crossing the Delaware Water Gap into New Jersey.

DSCN0451After climbing up the Kittatinny Mountain, which begins north-easterly of Wind Gap, we found ourselves back on the rock-strewn path that is so typical of the AT in Pennsylvania. This rocky path is without any distinctive landmark for seven miles, until one reaches Wolf Rocks, which is a ridge-line pile of boulders, across the top of which the AT stretches. This section is nearly as difficult and dangerous to cross as was the Knife Edge, which the AT traverses on its way toward Lehigh Gap. Between Wolf Rocks and Route 191 the trail is much improved, both smoother and wider.

Wolf Rocks

After crossing 191, where there is roadside parking, it is only half a mile to Kirkridge Shelter. Thus, although the shelter was deserted when Maple and I arrived, we figured we’d be having company, and even though rain was in the forecast, we decided to raise our tent outside, so we’d have privacy. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before a group of Boy Scouts arrived. They were so polite and gracious that we wouldn’t have minded if they had stayed, but there is very little tent space at Kirkridge Shelter, and after one of the leaders discovered the vacant lot of grass just north of the shelter, they packed up and set up their camp at this preferred location. We also had the pleasure of meeting two-time thru-hiker Nuthatch, who was on a day-hike with her canine companion, Mahoosuc, and decided to briefly stop by the shelter for the sake of memories. Ultimately, as things turned out, Maple and I had the shelter to ourselves throughout the night.

DSCN0456There is water seasonally at Kirkridge Shelter, potable water from a spigot, but the source is turned off during winter. Although it is early Spring, with temperatures now in the 70s, I decided it were best not to take chances, and so I packed 6 liters from Wind Gap. It was a good thing I did! There is still no water between Wind Gap and Caledonia Creek, at the bottom of Mount Minsi.

It rained during the night and nearly all morning. Fortunately, the weather cooled considerably, so in the morning Maple and I were not uncomfortable hiking in our rain jackets. We were back on the rock-strewn path until we reached Totts Gap, two miles north-east of the shelter. Between there and Mount Minsi, the AT follows a service road that makes for easy hiking.

View of the Delaware River from Mount Minsi

View of the Delaware River from Mount Minsi

The descent from Mount Minsi is steep, and one has to use large rocks as stepping stones. In the rain, these were slick, and though I tried to be as careful as I could, making use of my trekking poles for balance, I nevertheless slipped and came down on my hip. It was like slipping on ice and falling on concrete. I’m not sure whether my backpack made my fall harder or lessened the impact, but I soon was on my feet again, little worse for the wear. The occasional fall is just part of the price one pays for the pleasure of backpacking.

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By the time we reached the community of Delaware Water Gap, on the western side of the bridge crossing the Delaware River, the rain had stopped and the sky was rapidly clearing. We had another mile to go before we, finally, crossed the bridge and arrived at the parking lot at Dunnfield Creek in New Jersey.

 

A Change in Plans, and a Short Hike in Shenandoah NP

Although a little anxious about the weather this weekend, since a chance of rain and/or snow along with high winds was predicted, Karen and I decided it was time for us to get back onto the Appalachian Trail and complete our trek through Pennsylvania. We were to begin at Wind Gap, PA, and finish across the Delaware Water Gap, in NJ. Since it now takes us over four hours to arrive at our commencement point and we wanted to get on the trail early in the morning, we spent the night in a motel.

As always, we brought two cars, one to be waiting for us at our hiking destination, and one to drop us off at our beginning point. Well, we were within 100 feet of the AT parking lot in NJ, where we were to drop off our first vehicle, when our two cars were involved in a collision. Both required to be towed away from the scene. Our backpacking plans were shot. Ultimately we got a rental car and made our way back home, but we were both in the dumps.

Our spirits needed reviving, so on Sunday we drove out (in our rental) to Shenandoah National Park. Because Karen’s wrist was swollen and sore, disabling her from putting much pressure on one of her trekking poles, we decided upon a comparatively gentle hike, the Rose River Loop, a four-and-a-half-mile walk. We’d hiked it before (and blogged about it in August 2014).

TH-4-3-16Unfortunately, winter’s peculiar beauty, particularly when all is wrapped in snow, is past and spring is yet struggling to manifest itself on the heights of Shenandoah. There were few leaves on the trees, and all was brown and grey, with little touches of green here and there. But we were able to get good views of the river through the branches, and a few birds had already returned.

For the most part, it was just good to be outdoors. We needed to get some cool air into our lungs and work up a little sweat in a climb, but mostly we just needed to be surrounded by nature. At one point, where the trail starts to ascend, we sat ourselves down on the dirt, took out our little stove, and made ourselves some coffee. What could be better than to break from a hike, kick back with a mug of steaming coffee, and take in the scenes and sounds of nature all around? It was a restorative experience.

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